My Dear Rabbi Zahavy Talmudic Advice Column for September 2017 - Why Koreans Study Talmud and Why Yom Kippur Fasting Matters

My Dear Rabbi Zahavy Talmudic Advice Column for September 2017 - Why Koreans Study Talmud and Why Yom Kippur Fasting Matters

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I read that every South Korean child studies Talmud in school. I can’t imagine that is the case. Should I believe rumors like that? Why would the Koreans do that?

Wondering in Weehawken about the Seoul Talmud

Dear Wondering,

To the point, yes, it is true that Talmud is popular in Korea, but the why is complicated. (To be clear, we aren’t talking about North Korea here, for sure.)

To confirm a rumor like this use a rule of thumb: If it sounds sketchy, it probably is false. You should research the question. In this case, the report is true, though maybe not entirely what you think.

A 2015 New Yorker article spelled out nicely how this cross-cultural scenario unfolded. (The story is “How the Talmud Became a Best-Seller in South Korea,” by Ross Arbes.) Check out the essay. You will find that it is true in part. In part, it is not true that the Koreans study Talmud.

They study Jewish sources that come from the Talmud, which is a massive 1,500-year-old book of Jewish laws, stories, folklore, argumentation, and interpretations. Korean teachers engage their children in debating and analysis exercises that they call talmudic. But their version of the Talmud is highly popularized and adapted for their cultural context. Many Koreans also learn parts of basic Jewish rituals, like reciting the Shema.

But here is the rub. Koreans are not doing this to become Jewish, nor is this a particularly spiritual quest for them. They are engaging with Talmud to become successful and to get rich.

One Korean Christian minister explained, “The Jews have thrived for so many years because of certain educational and cultural practices…. Such benefits can be unlocked for Christians if those practices are taught to their children.”

More down to earth, the New Yorker piece explains why Christian Korean parents want their children to have a Jewish education, “Twenty-three per cent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish people. Korean women want to know the secret. They found the secret in this book.”

And the Talmud textbooks used in Korea extol the utilitarian view of the Talmud as a sort of Jewish success gospel. And you rightly may ask, how did the words of Talmud get to Korea? The country is so far away, both geographically and culturally, from the centers of Jewish learning in the West.

The main apostle of the Talmud to Korea has been a Great Neck rabbi named Marvin Tokayer, who wrote a quick popular book about Talmud when he was living in Japan in the late 1960s. It was published in Japanese in 1971 and became a hit. Tokayer published 20 more books about Judaism in Japanese.

The Koreans are highly competitive with the Japanese and quick to glom onto Tokayer’s books and publish versions of them in Korean. By about 2005, adaptations of his books were big hits in Korea, probably in large part because Koreans wanted an edge over their neighboring Japanese competitors.

I suspect that Koreans grabbed on to a set of vaguely Talmudic principles, contents, and exercises that are popular in their education system and pop culture. And in part it is connected to their competitiveness with the Japanese.

Bottom line, large numbers of Koreans believe that Talmud study improves their IQ and even helps students become more confident, develop chutzpah, and eventually will help Koreans win more Nobel prizes.

Now you may ask, is this dissemination of Talmud in Korea good for the Jews? Many rabbis speak against teaching Talmud to non-Jews. Some deride Tokayer’s popularizations as crude, lacking the depth and nuance of the real Talmud, while others worry about promoting Jewish stereotypes.

For me, the issues also cross into an area that I call cultural sportsmanship. By that I mean what most golfers and other competitive sports players know, that bragging and boasting about your game is not tasteful. Many people consider it socially wrong to engage in any form of grandiosity. You quickly learn, for instance, as you become a proficient golfer, not to proclaim loudly to others, “Did you see that great shot I just hit?”

At times, I have been tempted to publish a book that reveals the secrets of Jewish success rooted in Judaism and the Talmud. As a people, we certainly have hit many great shots. And I just may publish that book. (I’ve already written most of it.) But it will be hard for any writer on this topic not to cross over the line from description and analysis to what sounds like — and what truly is — bragging about how great we Jews are. And that’s not the best kind of cultural sportsmanship.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I’m not a fan of fasting. I like eating regularly every day. I don’t like pangs of hunger. I have found that a full day fast often gives me headaches or worse. This time of year, I face a big issue — Yom Kippur. Can you give me a dispensation so that I can eat on that day? And can you explain to me why fasting is such an important religious act?

Always Hungry in Hackensack

Dear Hungry,

I can tell you that fasting on Yom Kippur is an old and venerable and widespread practice going back to a biblical source in Leviticus 23:27: “Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be a holy convocation to you; and you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord.” Other translations render the Hebrew, “practice self-denial” or “humble yourselves.” Note that the language doesn’t specify a prohibition against eating, but that is how it has been interpreted for ages.

Please recall that in this column I do not offer dispensations, nor do I render decisions of Jewish law.

But I do discuss and offer advice. All denominations practice fasting on the assumption that God commanded us to torture our souls in that way, to engender our repentance.

But you want to know the religious meaning of the Yom Kippur fast. This atonement fast, by the way, is not akin to the purifying fasting Moses did on Mount Sinai before receiving the revelation of the Torah for all our people, or the preparative fasting Esther did before asking for the king to save our entire nation from destruction. This fast is personal and private devotion for individual people.

In this regard, it helps us to know the mechanism of a fast and the physiological effects of food denial.

Psychologists and biologists say that fasting can lead to changed or heightened state of consciousness that can open your spiritual experiences. Fasting may help a person feel weaker, allowing for a sense of compassion for himself and others — and that is a centerpiece of our atonement process for sins.

Fasting highlights for us our human fragility — how much we depend on regular eating — as you cite in your own question.

Fasting thus is an opportunity to connect the body, the mind, and the soul. It can assist your fixing and spiritual healing processes. You made mistakes, now you need to feel remorse and fix your life.

Although I cannot glibly give you a dispensation to eat because you want to or need to, I can suggest you speak to your doctor. If he or she thinks that you ought to refrain from fasting due to a health issue, then rabbis agree that you must eat and drink, even on Yom Kippur. And likewise, even if you are healthy enough and do fast, and during the day you suddenly feel ill or as if you are going to faint, then the taboo is suspended and you must eat.

When younger, I did once faint on Yom Kippur in the synagogue and I immediately was given water and food. Fortunately, it was a passing spell and nothing medically serious.

Now, if fasting is prescribed for you in your community, and I do believe all denominations prescribe it, there is to be no cheating — no secret nibbling or sipping to restore your comfort. Since these are the Holy Days of Awe, we don’t take quickly or lightly to compromising our ancient taboos and practices.

We generally are not a religion with high profile practices of physical self-flagellation (though we are hypercritical of each other at times — we beat ourselves up with chastisements, not whips). We make the exception for Yom Kippur, and practice the self-denial of fasting for this and a few other days through the year.

Fasting is not fun. It is not easy. And it may not be your thing. But I hope some of these observations will help you understand why it’s prescribed and meaningful in our religion.

And you may find it comforting to recall that part of the fasting includes eating a special pre-fast meal. And keep in mind that many Jews eat a festive break-fast together with family and friends, to ring in the blessed year after the fast. So, your post fasting experience can be an enjoyable repast to launch again the fresh and now, sin-free, New Year.

Finally, if you do fast on Yom Kippur, according to our custom, I wish you an easy one.

Wait, wait. Indeed, I agree, it is talmudically ironic that I wish you an easy affliction of your soul, an easy day of self-denial, and an easy humbling of the essence of your being. Ah well, so be it.

Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is a prolific author and has published numerous books about Judaism and Jewish texts. He teaches advanced Talmud and Jewish law codes at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. He also is CEO of Halakhah.com, a site that distributes worldwide over 600,000 English translations of the Talmud and other Judaic books for free every year.

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